Anna Wintour: The imperious diva

If it is a truism that we suffer for fashion, there may be no greater martyr than American Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. One story has it that Wintour, who wore stilettos through two pregnancies, once fell flat on her face in an office corridor, says The Guardian. A passing intern was so terrified of helping that she walked straight past. Colleagues quickly reassured her she’d done the right thing. La Wintour doesn’t do fallibility.

It’s a fair bet, then, that one word being avoided in editorial meetings at Vogue’s headquarters is “ambassador”. When rumours surfaced that Wintour – a naturalised US citizen and tireless Obama fundraiser – might be appointed the next US representative to London, the headline writers had a ball (“Diplomacy in the Age of Nuclear Wintour”).

It was not to be. But if Wintour is disappointed, she isn’t showing it, says The New York Times. Maintaining the story was cooked up by the press, she doesn’t seem to bear a grudge against the Obamas for passing her over: this month’s magazine contains yet another glossy paean to the First Lady.

Wintour’s putative political rise was watched with interest because she is viewed as a power-monger par excellence in her own industry, says the FT. Sent up as an imperious diva by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, fashion’s “pre-eminent eminence” is renowned for “the games of chess she plays with brands and designers” (see below).

Now, after 25 years at the helm of Vogue, where she reportedly makes over $2m a year, Condé Nast has handed her a lofty new title (group artistic director) and an expanded brief to encourage her to stay put.

NBC once included Wintour’s trademark rigid bob and shades in a list of America’s “top 10 Halloween costumes”, says The Daily Telegraph. But she can be warmer than her caricature.

Born into a family of journalists (her father, Charles Wintour, edited the London Evening Standard), she remembers the “inky whiff” of Fleet Street and still views London as “home”. The least academic child in her family, she suffered from “paralysing shyness” and drifted into journalism, moving to New York with Harper’s Bazaar.

No great shakes as a writer, it was her “eye” for style and ferocious work ethic that got her noticed. On landing the top job at Vogue in 1988, she set about transforming the ailing title into a money-making machine.

In 1999, Condé Nast chairman, Si Newhouse, described her as “the greatest Vogue editor of them all”. In those days, Wintour, 63, was important because Vogue was important, says The Independent. Condé Nast’s problem is that the two brands have become inextricably entwined. “They can’t put a number on her,” observes one analyst. Wintour might have lost her quest to cut an elegant dash at the Court of St James, but she’s still Queen of New York.

The understated theatre of an intimidating control-freak

Anna Wintour is used to having her word taken as law. When she declared in 1990 that black was “a non-colour”, acolytes stripped their wardrobes overnight. But while fellow editors at Condé Nast’s other big titles, Vanity Fair, GQ and The New Yorker, have duly paid respectful tribute to her promotion, they’re taking no chances with her well-known control-freakishness.

“She’s a great editor. Period,” says The New Yorker’s David Remnick, adding the precautionary: “I don’t expect Anna to be picking the cartoons or directing our war coverage.”

Some think the promotion could be the first step towards “more of an emeritus status”. But Condé Nast messes with Wintour’s hands-on grip on Vogue at its peril, says Vanessa Friedman in the FT. The most powerful woman in fashion has done as much as anyone to shape the modern industry.

“Very few conglomerate executives hire a new designer for a brand without consulting her”; she makes and breaks reputations. Above all, she backs talent; championing the few designers who, she says, “can change the way you look at fashion”.

The biggest question mark over Wintour’s expanding role is the fact that “her knowledge-base is in old media”. Phooey to that, she told The New York Times. The job “isn’t about a machine or an iPhone or an iPad. It’s about people”.

Given her glacial reputation, some might scoff at that. But there’s no gainsaying her effectiveness heading a team. “She can be intimidating… but she is just so incredibly positive,” designer Diane von Furstenberg told The New York Times. “She makes things happen.”

Critics argue Wintour is too powerful and accuse her of spinning “a pernicious web”, said Ann Treneman in The Independent in 1999. But what makes her special is her sense of understated theatre.

She was once lunching at the Four Seasons when an anti-fur activist threw a dead raccoon at her. Wintour “merely covered the furry corpse with her napkin and called for coffee”.